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Stealth Superpower: How Turkey Is Chasing China in Bid to Become the Next Big Thing
Posted on Jun 13, 2010
By John Feffer
Throughout the twentieth century, geography had proved a liability for Turkey. It found itself beset on all sides by former Ottoman lands which held grudges against the successor state. The magic trick the AKP performed was to transform this liability into an asset. Turkey in the twenty-first century turned on the charm. Like China, it discovered the advantages of soft power and the inescapable virtues of a “soft rise” during an era of American military and economic dominance.
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Perhaps the most dramatic reversal in Turkish policy involves the Kurdish region of Iraq. The détente orchestrated by the AKP could be compared to President Richard Nixon’s startling policy of rapprochement with China in the 1970s, which rapidly turned an enemy into something like an ally. In March, Turkey sent its first diplomat to Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to staff a new consulate there. Today, as journalist Jonathan Head has written, “70% of investment and 80% of the products sold in the Kurdish region [of Iraq] are Turkish.” Realizing that when U.S. troops leave Iraq, its Kurdish regions are bound to feel vulnerable and thus open to economic and political influence, Ankara established a “strategic cooperation council” to sort things out with the Iraqis in 2009, and this has served as a model for similar arrangements with Syria, Bulgaria, Greece, and Russia.
Détente with Iraqi Kurdistan has gone hand in hand with a relaxation of tensions between Ankara and its own Kurdish population with which it had been warring for decades. Until the early 1990s, the Turkish government pretended that the Kurdish language didn’t exist. Now, there is a new 24-hour Kurdish-language national TV station, and new faculty at Mardin Artuklu University will teach Kurdish. The government began to accept returning Kurdish refugees from northern Iraq, as well as a handful of Kurdish guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
This hasn’t been an easy sell for Turkish nationalists. In December, a Turkish court banned the main Kurdish political party, and this spring the military launched repeated attacks against PKK targets inside Iraq. But the AKP is continuing to push reforms, including proposed changes in the country’s constitution that would allow military commanders for the first time to be tried in civilian court for any crimes they commit.
The elimination of this demonizing of “internal enemies” is crucial to the AKP’s project, helping as it does to reduce the military’s power in internal affairs. Reining in the military is a top objective for party leaders who believe it will strengthen political stability, improve prospects for future integration into the European Union (EU), and remove a powerful opponent to domestic reforms—and to the party itself.
Only a little less startling than the government’s gestures toward the Kurds has been its program to transform Turkish-Greek relations. The two countries have long been at each other’s throats, their conflict over the divided island of Cyprus being only the most visible of their disagreements. The current Greek economic crisis, however, may prove a blessing in disguise when it comes to bilateral relations.
The Greek government—its finances disastrous and economic pressure from the European Union mounting—needs a way to make military budget reductions defensible. In May, Turkish president Erdogan visited Greece and, while signing 21 agreements on migration, environment, culture, and the like, began to explore the previously inconceivable possibility of mutual military reductions. “Both countries have huge defense expenses,” Erdogan told Greek television, “and they will achieve a lot of savings this way.”
If Turkey manages a rapprochement with Armenia, it will achieve a diplomatic trifecta. The two countries disagree over the fate of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which is also at the center of a dispute between Armenia and Turkish ally Azerbaijan. Complicating this territorial issue is a long-standing historical controversy. Armenia wants acknowledgement of the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 extermination campaign that killed more than a million Armenians. The Turkish government today disputes the numbers and refuses to recognize the killings as “genocide.” Nevertheless, Turkey and Armenia began direct negotiations last year to reopen their border and establish diplomatic relations. Although officially stalled, secret talks between the two are continuing.
Other diplomatic efforts are no less dramatic. When Bashar Assad arrived in Ankara in 2004, it was the first visit by a Syrian leader in 57 years. Meanwhile, Turkey has cemented its relations with Russia, remains close to Iran, and has reconnected to the Balkans. This charm offensive makes Chinese efforts in Asia look bumbling.
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